The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King dir. Peter Jackson

Opens Wed Dec 17.

After the FIrst two installments of the Lord of the Rings series, I staggered out of the theater with wet eyes and told everyone who would listen that the films' only flaw was that they weren't each eight hours long. I wanted the saga to continue indefinitely, infinitely, like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Shoah, and I was perfectly prepared to sit and stare for as long as director Peter Jackson demanded. But now that I've seen the three-and-a-half-hour final chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien's epic myth-history of Middle-earth, I'm kind of relieved that the whole thing is over.

Having signed on for the films with full-blown fandom, I naturally ascribed a certain profundity to their adventures. In reviewing The Two Towers for this paper, I argued that Jackson's adaptation made the case for war--especially war against a savage horde--as a necessary facet of Western civilization, drawing a none-too-subtle parallel between the movie and current events. Now, I'm not saying that idea doesn't exist in the trilogy, or that war isn't a necessary facet of Western civilization. What I'm saying is that a desire to make these films stand for more than they do is a symptom of my own need to justify enthusiasm for a well-executed piece of fantasy storytelling.

More succinctly: About 45 minutes into The Return of the King, just as "the great battle of our time" is about to commence, the screen is filled with the grotesque prosthetic head of a creature who announces, in a prototypical monster voice, that "the age of men is over" and that "the time of the Orc has come." It was this specific moment that made me realize that despite its monumental overtones, The Lord of the Rings was not a metaphor. It's not an allegory for the conflict between agrarianism and industrialization, or humanism and fascism, or reason and religion, or England and Russia. Nor is it--as I have allowed myself to believe on more far-flung occasions--an elaborately coded argument that homosexuality is the only pure form of love (the ring representing the heterosexual corruption that leads to violence, betrayal, and other forms of degradation--just a theory). The Lord of the Rings is none of these things. It's just a mammoth fable about Orcs, Elves, wizards, Trolls, Hobbits, Dwarves, and men, and the time they all got into a big-ass war, and the men won.

The realization that the trilogy doesn't go much beyond good and evil was, initially, a major disappointment--and a retroactive one. After greeting the first two films with slack-jawed reverence, I found myself viewing the third with a kind of grumpy anticipation. It's not that I didn't want to see the great battle of our time, or the Hobbits at the foot of Mt. Doom, or the inevitable heroic denouement where everybody tells everybody else how special they are; I just felt a little guilty about how much I wanted to see it. What I soon discovered, however, was that the begrudging-ness of my affection for the film was no match for Peter Jackson's swashbuckling craft. If this is just a fantasy, Jackson seems to say, it's going to deliver on every level available. And it does. Unburdened from the need to be relevant, the director reveals a far deeper mission: to make these absurd surroundings not only cinematically credible, but emotionally resonant. Human, in short.

The Return of the King opens with a very tight shot of an earthworm wriggling between two little sausage fingers. Like many of Jackson's decisions over the course of the trilogy, the perverse delicacy of this moment is both startling and inevitable, reminding us of the organic core of the fantasy at hand. The scene depicts the origin of Gollum, the character whose combination of technological invention and human pathos is the series' greatest triumph. Born of an act of ring-inspired violence, Gollum devolves from sweet little halfling named Smeagol into the vicious reptilian rodent we remember from The Two Towers. This transformation induces pathos and wonder, two feelings that will serve us well as we witness the multiple climaxes of the three-part story.

First, and most compelling, is the quest of hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), accompanied by the treacherous Gollum (a staggering hybrid of actor Andy Serkis and CGI effects), to carry the One Ring to the fires of Mt. Doom--the only place it can be destroyed. This storyline brings out the best elements of both Tolkien's imagination and Jackson's. The interplay between the three halflings, and the way the ring tears them apart, has an almost Pinteresque dramatic quality. But there again is my dilemma. There's nothing "Pinteresque" about two hairy-footed midgets and a digital lizard carrying a magic ring to a volcano. There just isn't. Still, their story is riveting and emotional (you've never seen an action epic in which the main characters spend so much time with tears in their eyes)--it's just that their big conflicts are giant spiders, Orcs, and Nazgul... and therefore, only gripping while the movie lasts.

As for the rest--the siege of the city of Minas Tirith; the ascension of titular King Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen)--it's all handled with predictable mastery and as much human complexity as the form allows, which is more than any other filmmaker has ever even attempted to bring to it.

Ultimately, the chief difference between this film and its two predecessors is the presence of resolution. The story ends, just like we all knew it would. And there's something inherently disappointing about that, because it means not just the conclusion of the story, but of the audacity required to film it this way, and the prolonged pleasure of watching it unfold. Seeing it end is akin to the feeling of being so invested in a movie that you stay in the theater until the last credit has rolled. Then the lights come up, and all you are, really, is a few hours older and all alone.

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